On July 21, Russian authorities accused independent Novosibirsk city lawmaker Khelga Pirogova of disseminating "false information discrediting the armed forces" and launched a criminal investigation. The next day, she quietly left the country for Georgia.
"My friends informed me that a criminal case had been opened," Pirogova said in an exclusive telephone interview with RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities. "It all happened pretty quickly."
On the morning of July 21, she said, when she was still facing only an administrative charge, she had no intention of leaving Russia.
"I would have stayed," she said. "I was ready for interrogation and jail."
But a criminal charge and the prospect of a prison term of up to 10 years was another matter for the 33-year-old deputy who is several months pregnant with her first child.
"Then the choice was between [my desire to fight the charges] and not just my freedom, but my future child's," she said. "I could not allow it to be in jail immediately after its birth."
Prigorova was elected to the Novosibirsk City Council with the support of opposition political leader Aleksei Navalny's Smart Voting initiative in 2020. Since then, Navalny himself has been imprisoned on charges he dismisses as politically motivated, and many of his active supporters have been prosecuted or forced to flee the country. In June 2021, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices were shut down after being designated "extremist" organizations by the Russian government.
Earlier this month, prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin was charged under the same law on "discrediting the armed forces," which President Vladimir Putin signed just days after launching the large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Moscow district council deputy Aleksei Gorinov, the first elected official to be convicted under the law, was handed a seven-year prison term.
The charges against Pirogova stem from a post on Twitter in mid-July in which she commented sarcastically about poor Russians expressing gratitude to the government for paying for the funerals of their relatives who were killed fighting in Ukraine.
"It seemed horrible to me that relatives who had just lost a husband or a brother or a son, instead of mourning the fact that their loved one is gone, are marveling that such a wonderful funeral had been organized for them with so much food that you could invite half the village," Pirogova said.
Pirogova quickly deleted the post, but a screenshot went viral. "I reread it and saw that it could be taken in the wrong way," she said. "And it was taken in the wrong way."
The post, she said, was "too emotional."
Even though she removed the post, Novosibirsk City Council Deputy Chairman Andrei Panfyorov, of the ruling United Russia party, denounced Pirogova to the Investigative Committee and set off the investigation against her.
But Pirogova believes her Twitter post was just a pretext to come after her as an outspoken critic of Putin and the war in Ukraine.
"Their only goal is to drive all opposition-minded people out of the country," she told RFE/RL. "It doesn't matter what pretext they use."
When Pirogova learned about the criminal charges against her, she made the decision to leave Russia immediately.
"I understood that I didn't even have time to gather my things," she said. "They could be waiting for me anywhere."
Now for the first time, without thinking or hesitating or filtering your words, you can just say ‘war' and not be afraid.Khelga Pirgova
"Since I was downtown, I went straight to the airport," she continued. "I can't say who helped me buy the ticket, but I didn't have any problem crossing the borders, neither in Russia nor in Georgia. They hadn't managed yet to put me on a no-fly list….That is one reason why I think their real goal was to push me out of the country."
Since she left, she has felt the burden of self-censorship being lifted from her. She recalled how strange it felt for her to openly call the war in Ukraine a "war" during interviews with journalists from Georgia.
"To be honest, it was quite odd," she said. "It has been going on for five months and now for the first time, without thinking or hesitating or filtering your words, you can just say ‘war' and not be afraid."
She added that she has been going through her social-media posts from recent months and adding comments indicating what she had really wanted to say.
Pirogova plans to continue working as a city council member remotely as long as she is able.